Introduction -- Why Study Neopets
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Why write about, think, or criticise Neopia? It is after all just a kid's game. It is no place thinking people would ever go on online. It is just a game, and after all no one has to stay there. If one doesn't like it one is free to leave. And of doesn't Neopets have free commercial and just plain freedom of speech? Surely you are not for censorship!
The first reason Neopia should be a subject of study is it's size. Neopia's over one million users (They claim seventy million or more), their real world presence with toys and cards, and media, and the fact that they make a big profit should make them a ripe subject for real world scrutiny.
Neopia is also more than just a game. As mentioned above, it is a profitable real world business, a big business. It is also a community, and for many younger users the first community they join. For many older uses, Neopets is the first community where the lights are on and something is always doing. That is a fantastic attraction.
And just because thinking people might never choose to become Neopians, doesn't mean they should not think about Neopets (even if it means they have to join to see for themselves). Neopets is the very opposite of what idealists conceived the net and virtual communities would become. Neopia is completely closed source/proprietary. Everything from the names of the pets to the food they eat to locations to materials for weapons is copyrighted. Heavy handed censorship within Neopia is not only attempts to keep out not only pornography and scamming, but also politics, religion (including prayer requests and mention of religious activities,) current events (try discussing these without politics or religion), history (see current events), or science (without being able to use the word sex, it is very hard to discuss biology. Pets have sex not gender.) Space for personal expression within Neopia is measured by the character not the kb.With the exception of the beauty contest there is no place to upload or store files.
Any one leaving Neopia unless they have played defensively leaves with nothing. This is not true of most other online activities. Web pages and blogs remain even when you stop contributing to them. One can transcribe email and it remains in a list's archives even after you leave. At Neopia, there is no access to other players' outside email addresses. Were I to leave, I would lose contact with all but one of my Neofriends. Neopoints, Neopia's currency is of course worthless elsewhere.
And where does one who is leaving go? Most groups on the net are a few individuals and they may be active or they may not, but typically if one is used to the level of activity of Neopia, one will find even the boards at RAOK (http://www.theraokgroup.com) and LOTH (http://www.ladies-of-the-heart.com) nearly dead by comparison. There will be no games to play. If one is used to being entertained, the idea that one will have to make and be one's own entertainment is going to be a tough one to learn.
Also, Neopia's proprietary nature makes it difficult to take one's pets with one. Fan fiction is derivative work and exists at the suffrance of the copyright holder. If you want to write fiction or role play for eopets on your hard drive, you can do that but once it finds its way to a web page, board, or blog, you begin to run afoul of copyright law. If Neopets does not like what you write, they have every right to come after you. Neopets' species, locations in Neopia, the names of most foods, and many battle items are all copyrighted. To write fairly legal fan fiction, one must carefully strip all Neopian "indica" from the story. The same is true if one wants to set up a satellite site for role playing Neopets, and hosts for such sites such as MSNGroups do not take kindly to copyright violation, even if it is for fan fiction.
Moreover, Neopets bills itself as a trusted brand that is safe for children. To fulfill a law called COPPA, a large proportion of Neopia's youngest members can not speak to one another because they lack parental permission. How this assures their safety is beyond me. It is more than possible for children to meet a nasty adult, but they can also meet other helpful children, teens, and adults. Neopets has a complex economy and the youngest members need all the help they can get. Neopia's large size also means that safety is an illusion. With a million users and fewer than a thousand staff, all staff can do is act after an incident has occured rather than fostering a safe atmosphere with fewer incidents. Since useres feel little ownership stake in Neopia, many teens also attempt to commit vandalism either by testing the Neorules (opppressive though they are) on the boards or by mounting something questionable on a user lookup or store.
Beyond COPPA, Neopets is an intentionally deceptive site. Items advertised as new are nearly always unavaiable, or way out of the price range of someone who can not arrange a signficant amount of playing time every day. Still other items, appear cheap when one first invests, but one finds out later that completing the Neohome or set of cards or whatever, costs far more than the startup cost. Generally one expects games for children to be fair. Neopets is not.
Gambling within Neopia is a subject for a whole essay in and of itself, but American children may gamble (Australian Neopians no longer have access to the games of chance) on Neopia, and they gamble in ways far less benign than the traditional card games taught by family members or dreidl spinning or other social games of chance. Gambling at Neopia is nearly always solitary, encourages chasing losses, and risk's a pet's health. Inducement to gamble in the form of free games (two per day) and an occaisional free scratch card is rife. Gambling games also give out avatars (small online stickers for use on the boards) to winners as a form of advertisement.
And I believe that the censorship at Neopets hurts those of all ages. The twelve year old who wants to write a Neoadventure that features a graphicly violent brawl, the ten year old with a prayer request, the fourteen year old who wants to discuss women's health issues, are all chafing under the censor's ban.
Neopets does not run with best interests of the membership in mind. Put bluntly, it is not a democracy. Neopets is run by its owners for the good of making money through its advertisers and the royalties from real world Neopets' merchandise. The membership is incidental. Turnover is high. Accounts are frequently frozen. Uers may start again, but they lose their pets, all posessions, and Neopoints. As long as Neopets has a large enough pool of fresh users, it has no interest in fostering retention or caring about users who are too poor to afford what is advertised or who grow sick of the place and move on when they grow frustrated. It gets rid of vandals by freezing their accounts. The vandals either leave in disgust or come back chastened or repeatedly lose accounts.
So what can any of us do about Neopets? Neopets is a public entity and a large one. Any one can join and find out what goes on there. Go and have a look for yourself and then tell the world what you see. Currently a pretty venal and nasty operation is hiding under the cover of being a trusted brand name that is good for children, but if we shine a light on what goes on inside the walls, take it seriously, and then talk about what we see, Neopets might feel the public pressure to change. They of course have the freedom to operate any way they see fit, but we have the freedom to discuss Neopia in our churches, media, and other public spaces, and Neopets is large, profitable, and powerful enough to deserve to be the object of that discussion.